A bike, a picturesque canal in the Loire Valley and a barge prove to be a perfect combination, writes Michael Gebicki
IAM pretending to fish. I have borrowed a rod that seems to stretch halfway across the canal where I am sitting and the fisherman who lent it to me while he went to the bar for an aperitif said that I might catch une carpe . I hope I don’t, and I’m doing my best not to. Minimal activity is required but mock fishing gives me a reason to sit in this luscious place.
Every now and again I jiggle the rod and the float bobs, fracturing the reflections of Menetreol-sousSancerre on the far bank and sending stone houses, an arched bridge and several moored houseboats off on a wobbly, waterborne journey.
I’m on a barge trip through the Loire Valley, from Plagny to Rogny, a footloose, gypsy voyage straight from The Wind in the Willows. It’s messing about in boats elevated to an art form, with wine from the vineyards, ripe cheeses, the smell of fresh baguettes in the morning and the midsummer glories of middle France passing in slow motion along both banks. I feel like Ratty in a beret.
There is also a serious side to this trip. Arranged in a line on the far side of Anna Maria IV, the barge that is my temporary home, is a line of bicycles. Every morning after breakfast, Henk, our cycle guide, musters us together and we swing our legs over and pedal off to explore some scrumptious bit of la belle France —a market, a church, a wine cellar, a chateau or perhaps all of the above — while the barge putters along to another village where we rendezvous in late afternoon.
I’m travelling with my elder daughter, Camilla. It’s a goodbye trip. She’ll spend the next six months working and studying in Paris. It’s an opportunity to get her used to foreign foibles and impart some of my own suave wisdom, and it’s working like a charm. So far, she has learned that in France she can light up a cigarette anywhere and anytime, she can carry a small dog tucked inside her coat with its head sticking out and that it’s perfectly OK to shunt other cars back and forth with your bumpers to squeeze into a parking spot. These will stand her in good stead if she decides to take up smoking or acquire a dog or a car. And we’re getting close. A little closer than we’d like, perhaps. Quarters on the barge are squishy, and if one of us wants to so much as floss, the other must lie quietly on their bunk.
On board the Anna Maria is a UN of the pale-skinned races: several Germans, two Brits, a Belgian and an American couple. There are also the Italians, three keen female cyclists from Turin. The Italians always look great. They have cool sunglasses and chic footwear, natty cycling gloves and modish Lycra. After dinner, they find the best bars. In the saddle, they climb in some whale of a gear at least two clicks higher than the one I am in, maintaining an animated conversation that involves lots of hand gestures as they grind past me. They also smoke, languidly and often.
In the middle of the first day’s cycling we stop at Apremont-sur-Allier, one of the most beautiful villages in France, the sign at the entrance to the village boasts, not that you need telling.
In the Middle Ages, the quarries of Apremont provided stone for some of France’s architectural glories, such as Sainte-Croix Cathedral in Orleans. Between the world wars, two civic-minded individuals decided to re-create the village, removing all the unsightly bits and reconstructing its dwellings in toast- coloured stone. Seasoned by the intervening years, Apremont today is a pint-sized delight and a favourite with local painters, a rusticated confection of cottages with chimneys and wisteria-covered towers, with the broad Allier nibbling at its banks.
Rising above the town towards its hilltop chateau is the Parc Floral, a flowery extravaganza built around a series of ponds with a waterfall and some gingerbread buildings. It’s nature on steroids, buffed and manicured to maximum effect. Since I am susceptible to gooey excess, I am drooling in an embarrassing way and stopping every few paces to snap another photo, so Camilla abandons me and wanders off along the lake towards the Turkish pavilion.
Henk likes the trees best. It’s unusual to see old, big trees in the countryside in Europe, he tells me. Most were cut down when fuel supplies ran low during the war. The winter of 1944-45 was especially harsh.
Several times we come across markets in the towns we visit, and a French town on market day is an instructive experience. At Chatillon-Coligny (pop. 1939), a street 200m long is lined with stalls selling roasted chickens, fish, vegetables glistening with dewy freshness, freckled pears blushed with pink, fungi still smelling of dark woods and honey-sweet white nectarines. Every French shopper seems to have an intense personal relationship with their butcher, baker, vegetable man and poultry purveyor, which makes their shopping excursions a protracted affair.
I’ve bought vehicles in less time than it can take a French housewife to buy a bunch of parsley. Cheese is especially crucial. At the market this day there are two
wagons selling nothing but Reblochon and Port-salut, roquefort and Pont-l’Eveque, molten bries and chevre.
There are random surprises all along the way. When we stop in the middle of nowhere there are blackberry bushes bowed down with knobbly fruit. One afternoon we hire canoes and paddle down the Loire, beginning in the shadow of a nuclear power plant. On the evening when we berth at La Charite I head off for a swim and go whizzing down some rapids, caught in the current.
There are long, snoozy lunches lying on the grass in churchyards and evening walks through villages. Late one afternoon we stop at a chateau where a cardboard sign announces a wine tasting of pouilly fume. It’s fuller and softer than the sancerre I’ve been drinking, with a hint of gooseberry and a trace of the smoky flavours implied in the name. It’s j6 ($10) a bottle. I buy two, which is as much as I can carry. Despite a blatant attempt at bribery, Camilla refuses to take another bottle in her saddlebags.
The roads we cycle are mostly minor paved country lanes, the distances anything from 25km to 50km in a day, The pace is modest for the most part. The only challenging ride is the quad-burning climb to the hilltop village of Sancerre. This is the spiritual home of sauvignon blanc and the village is well supplied with wine shops selling the famous wine to which it gives its name. On the other side of the town we spiral downhill in a freewheeling slalom, wind rushing through our hair, scenery blurring and spokes singing in a taste of two-wheeled heaven.
The stalwart Anna Maria IV is all things to us: a floating hotel, a restaurant and source of cheer, entertainment and local knowledge. In charge is an amiable and exceedingly handsome young Dutch couple, Martijn and Marjorie, who dish out toothsome treats and coffee when we return saddlesore. It’s also exceptional value. Including the coach transfers from Gare du Nord in Paris plus our bikes, guide, lodging and breakfast, lunch and dinner, the cost is about $200 a day, which is astonishing for Europe in high summer.
‘‘ We sometimes have a bonfire here,’’ says Martijn, on the night that we moor at Briare. We’re outside the town, amid green fields. After dinner, we set off in search of wood. I head off down an embankment, past some houses and into a woodland that has recently been cleared, still strewn with felled trees. Two of the Germans follow me, exclaiming in delight at this mother lode of combustible vegetation. Meanwhile, the Brits and the Americans disappear in the direction of the river. They return quite some time later dragging a large tree stump over which they stand like hunters, panting and grinning. After a half hour of enthusiastic gathering it’s quite a pile. Despite a strong wind and spattering rain, Mike, who shows a surprising inclination towards pyromania for a retired scientist, coaxes the wood alight. In no time it’s a roaring inferno.
Martijn appears, a little concerned that the 3m flame leaping into the night sky may attract attention. More worrying still are the embers that are showering in the direction of his boat. Marjorie scoops a couple of buckets from the canal and puts them close. ‘‘ I think we’d better leave it alone now,’’ says Martijn, just as Mike is about to heave the trophy stump on to the blaze. We go to bed soon after, smelling of smoke and terribly happy.
The French began constructing canals late in the 16th century to create a heavy-duty haulage system for cargoes of primary produce. By the time they finished 200 years later the slender brown capillaries of the canal network measured almost 9000km.
Barges could travel from the Atlantic to the Mediterranean without leaving France, deliver firewood to Paris and wine to Germany. The French canals still have a blue-collar function. Components of the Airbus A380, which has just made its debut, were transported to the assembly plant in Toulouse by barge. Those same canals have been happily adopted by water gypsies looking for a week or two, or even a bobbing retirement home, amid the rustic glories of the real France.
One day, instead of pedalling, I stay on board. It’s the section from Briare to Rogny. It begins with the Briare Aqueduct, a 662m metal trough that allows barges on the Canal Lateral to pass over the Loire River, and a wonder of late 19th-century engineering.
Beyond we take the Briare Canal, one of the oldest in France, linking the Loire with the Seine. For the first half of the day, the locks lift us up, for the second half it’s down.
We pass through 14 locks that day, some so close that I leave the barge, stroll along the bank for a kilometre or so and wait for the barge to catch up. At the stately pace of 6km/ h we glide past fields of sunflowers and between avenues of plane trees that ladder the water with their shadows.
Late in the afternoon we pass four elderly men in a skiff, three with walrus moustaches, sitting around a table scatted with baguette, cheese and wine. They raise their glasses in
Slow boat to Rogny: The pace of life aboard a canal barge is leisurely, with plenty of time to explore the picturesque villages of the Loire Valley, visit local markets and savour the region’s luscious food and wine
Wheels and deals: From barge to bike along the canals of the Loire Valley